Bobbi Humphrey - flute
Four decades before Esperanza Spalding broke out (and ultimately won her Grammy in 2011), flutist Bobbi Humphrey was rocking her Angela Davis 'fro with pride and majesty while also converting hordes of new jazz fans into the fold. Signed to the Blue Note label in 1971 by George Butler, Humphrey herself broke out in a big way with 1974's crossover album Blacks and Blues, which included her hit single "Harlem River Drive." On the strength of that catchy, seminal smooth jazz anthem (produced by the hit-making team of Larry and Fonce Mizell), she was booked by impresario George Wein to appear at the 1975 Newport Jazz Festival in New York, sharing the bill at Avery Fisher Hall with jazz legend Sonny Rollins.
Premiering material from her recent album Satin Doll (released in March, 1975), Humphrey connected with the crowd throughout her set of appealing jazz-funk fusion. Opening their set with the groove-oriented "New York Times," Humphrey and her crew settle into a wholly syncopated, funkified re-imagining of the popular Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn number "Satin Doll." Next, a churning, untitled 6/8 Afro-Cuban groover, which sounds like a variation on Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," gives Humphrey a chance to stretch out and wail with virtuosic abandon on flute, effectively convincing any naysayers in the audience as to her ability to deal authentically in the spirit of real jazz improvisation.
The opening notes of her 1973 hit single "Harlem River Drive" is met with cheers of recognition from the audience before Humphrey shifts gears and turns chanteuse with a sweet, sensitive soprano voice on a charming rendition of "My Little Girl," an original ballad dedicated to her daughter (who is pictured on the cover of her 1975 album Satin Doll). And they close out their 1975 Newport Jazz Festival in ultra-funky fashion with the slamming "Fun House," also from Satin Doll.
Born Barbara Ann Humphrey on April 25, 1950 in Marlin, Texas, she was raised in Dallas and began playing flute in high school. After seeing her play at a talent contest at Southern Methodist University, Dizzy Gillespie encouraged her to pursue a musical career in New York City. She subsequently came to the Big Apple, performed at the Apollo Theater on amateur night and subsequently began playing regularly on the scene.
After signing with Blue Note in 1971, George Butler changed her first name to Bobbi and set her on a course of blending jazz, funk, pop, and R&B into a new crossover sound that defined the direction of the Blue Note label during the '70s.
She debuted with 1972's Flute In and followed with Dig This, Blacks and Blues, Satin Doll, Live at Montreux, and Fancy Dancer. In 1976, she was named Best Female Instrumentalist by Billboard magazine. The following year, she switched record labels, signing with Epic and releasing Tailor Made that same year. She also played on Stevie Wonder's platinum album Songs in the Key of Life in 1977.
She followed with 1978's Freestyle and 1979's The Good Life. After a long recording drought, she came out with 1989's City Beat on Malaco Records. Five years later, she released Passion Flute on her own Paradise Sounds label.
A bona fide smooth jazz pioneer, Humphrey reveals her most potent and playful sides on this 1975 Newport Jazz Festival appearance. (Milkowski)